Haiti’s cry for help
What’s behind the government’s request for foreign assistance—and troops?
The United Nations is stepping up its humanitarian efforts in Haiti amid a growing cholera epidemic. Healthcare workers have confirmed nearly 1,000 cases of the disease, and nearly 200 deaths. But the cholera outbreak is just one of many problems plaguing the Caribbean nation. And its government wants more than humanitarian assistance.
In October, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and 18 members of his cabinet requested the immediate deployment of a “specialized armed force” to bring order to the country. The request came after roughly two years of pronounced societal breakdown, including political protests, a spate of kidnappings, cholera resurgence, and shortages of water, food, and fuel, which are controlled by powerful gangs. Here’s what you need to know about the history behind the upheaval.
How did Haiti get to its current crisis?
Haiti has faced political and societal turbulence for nearly all of its 200-year history. Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, pins much of the blame on international powers like the United States and France. France crippled its former colony’s economy early on by demanding payment—about $21 billion in today’s money—for its independence. Haiti emptied its treasury after just a few payments and took out hefty loans from French, and later American, banks to help pay off the debt. Payments to both countries continued from 1825 to 1947, draining Haiti’s income. The United States and other powerful countries also frequently supported corrupt leaders like the autocratic Duvaliers, whose regime controlled Haiti from 1957 to 1986.
But Concannon pointed to the rise of the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) in 2011 as the cause of the past decade’s woes. He said the PHTK has systematically dismantled accountability mechanisms, replacing them with “a patronage machine.” The government has not held elections since 2016, when the late President Jovenel Moïse came to power, so no one is holding the executive branch accountable. Moïse arbitrarily removed Supreme Court justices, replaced some with his own appointees, and refused to fill other vacancies. The terms of the entire House of Deputies and two-thirds of the Senate ran out in 2020—leaving only 10 senators in office. Moïse essentially ruled by decree until his July 2021 assassination. His unelected successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, hasn’t changed anything. Journalists and protesters are frequently attacked and intimidated by national police. Gangs, often supported by the government and used to do its dirty work, have grown out of control.
Have foreign troops been deployed to Haiti before?
Yes, at least three times in the last 120 years. The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, following the assassination of then-President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam and the ousting or killing of six of his predecessors. Haiti had strong ties with Germany at the time, and Washington wanted to curtail the influence of the Central Powers in the Caribbean—and benefit from controlling Haiti’s resources and finances. American representatives chose new political leaders, instituted forced labor, and often killed those who resisted the occupation.
Foreign soldiers returned in 1994, when Washington led a multinational force that included over 20,000 American troops to help restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a military coup deposed him. Some American troops remained in Haiti until 2000. A coordinated United Nations peacekeeping effort ran from 1993 to 2000.
After another coup ousted Aristide again in 2004, Washington pushed him to resign and flew him out of the country. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, also known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, sent peacekeeping forces to Haiti in 2004. They stayed until 2017.
Did foreign intervention help Haiti?
The 1915-1934 occupation brought some stability and improvements to infrastructure and agriculture but not without widespread human rights abuses. U.S. officials also forced the Haitian government to obtain their approval for all financial and most legislative decisions. At times, those officials’ salaries and expenses took up to 5 percent of Haiti’s total revenue.
The 1994 intervention caused controversy, but most Haitians eventually accepted it because it came at the request of Aristide’s legitimately elected government. American troops removed the military regime that had ousted Aristide and restored him to power. Concannon said the UN peacekeepers helped stabilize the country by “doing serious police training, working with justice officials, [and] working with police to try to create this culture of democracy.” But Washington also conditioned Aristide’s return on an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that forced the island to open its markets, undercutting local agricultural producers.
Concannon said the 2004 intervention remains very unpopular among Haitians, who see it as a failure. “The UN sent in a peacekeeping mission, not to protect democracy, but to consolidate the coup d’etat,” he said. “They stayed for 13 years, spent $9 billion, and left Haiti less democratic than before.”
UN peacekeepers successfully reduced some gang violence and trained a new civilian police force. But Concannon said their presence also propped up leaders who often refused to hold free elections and supported gangs. Peacekeepers also were accused of causing a cholera epidemic and committing sexual abuse crimes.
Will international powers send troops to Haiti this time?
The United States and Canada sent armored vehicles and other supplies to the Haitian National Police in mid-October. The United States and Mexico have drafted a UN Security Council resolution that proposes “a limited, carefully scoped, non-UN mission led by a partner country.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has also called for an armed force to combat the gangs, but analysts say UN troops are unlikely to be called up, given peacekeepers’ unpopular history in Haiti.
How did Haitians react to Henry’s request?
Thousands of protesters flooded cities across Haiti. “Haitians see this as one more attempt to prop up a repressive and corrupt government,” Concannon said. A coalition of over 600 Haitian organizations from churches to labor unions released a statement opposing foreign intervention. “History teaches us that no foreign force has ever solved the problems of any people on earth,” it said.
So what will solve Haiti’s problems?
Concannon said the first step needs to be a return to a legitimate, elected government. A new government won’t immediately fix gang violence or corruption, he said, but it will listen to the people. It could give Haitians “an opportunity to rebuild the police, to build the economy, to give young men something else to do besides go to gangs, and create a justice system that can punish people who do choose to follow a life of crime,” Concannon said. “What Haitians are saying is there’s no quickie solution to the gangs. But today, we can stop making things worse.”
Haiti has seen a lot of U.S. missionary involvement. What's the status of that work during this current crisis?
Most direct U.S. missionary work has stopped. The U.S. Embassy officially warned Americans to leave Haiti on Oct. 7, but the country has been on the State Department’s “Do not travel” list since early 2020. The high-profile kidnapping of 16 American missionaries and one Canadian in October 2021 led many ministries to pull remaining U.S. staff from Haiti. Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), the sending organization of the kidnapped missionaries, has some Haitian staff remaining in the country, but recently lost its base in Titanyen to gangs. Catholic Relief Service has about 200 Haitian staff members, but they mostly work remotely, putting outreach programs on hold. Gangs control the fuel and roads they need to get to the office. An organization Concannon personally works with now trains Haitian medical staff over Zoom.
Church World Service, an aid partnership of over 30 U.S. denominations, has suspended all activities in the Port-au-Prince region due to gang violence. But local Haitian staff continue some agriculture, home construction, and clean water programs in rural areas. Concannon said many organizations are following Church World Service’s approach: ministering quietly in rural areas, gaining some measure of protection through their importance to their communities. “Either the gang member’s mother is getting health treatments, so they’re not going to attack it, or the gangs just know that…[they’d] make a lot of enemies if [they] attack them,” he said.
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